The Life of My Choice

The Life of My Choice by Wilfred Thesiger (W.W. Norton & Co.)

Three months ago, on a cloudless afternoon, only fifteen miles from the center of London, at an old people’s home surrounded by horse-meadows and a golf-course that looked as if they had lain unchanged for a hundred years, I shook hands with Sir Wilfred Thesiger. This extraordinary traveler, famous for his ascetic manners and commitment to the hardship of living the traditional life of the desert-dwellers, sat stiffly in his jacket and tie. The man who resisted almost all technological change in the twentieth century (he was an expert photographer, but used only black-and-white), and who had once said that his body should be left out for the vultures to feed on when he died, had returned to his homeland to live out his remaining years. With a faltering hand affected by Parkinson’s disease, he signed my copy of his autobiography, The Life of My Choice.

To what degree can free choices drive the variety and richness of our lives? Thesiger admits that, as the first British child to be born in Abyssinia (in 1910), the influence that the 1916 entry into Addis Ababa of Ras Tafari’s victorious army of Shoans against the Wollo made an indelible impression upon him.  “I believe that day implanted in me a life-long craving for barbaric splendor, for savagery and color and the throb of drums, and that it gave me a lasting veneration for long-established custom and ritual.”  While Thesiger is probably best-known for his pioneering trek across the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, and for the devoted account of his life among the Marsh Arabs of Iraq (whom Saddam Hussein almost exterminated), he leaves his other books (Arabian Sands, The Marsh Arabs) to tell those stories. Here he concentrates on his austere childhood, the early death of his father, difficult days at Eton, and then his remarkable experiences, mainly in Africa, venturing into the unknown, fighting the Italians in Abyssinia, and working for Britain’s SAS in the Western Desert in WW II.

It is easy to judge our predecessors by the climate of our times. Readers may carp at Thesiger’s desire to blast off his rifle at innocent animals purely for sport. The habits of the Danakil warriors he admired, proving their manhood via slaughter of rival tribesmen, shows that barbarism and savagery are just that. Thesiger’s preference for turning the clock back to the Age of Steam was obviously unrealistic, as the tribes he lived with became fascinated by, and even appreciated, some of the benefits of twentieth-century science. But his unique dedication to understanding and experiencing the life of the people he encountered, without any motive of proselytism or cultural improvement, shines through in this engrossing work. And he is outspoken in his account of the destructive influence of the Western world: in one of the most telling paragraphs, he tells how the UK ambassador at the time of Mengistu’s disastrous Marxist revolution replied to his inquiry as to whether Russian or Chinese agents had introduced communism to Ethiopia:  “There was no need. The revolution was largely brought about by British and American communist school teachers and university lecturers.”

Thesiger died on August 24th at the age of ninety-three. Maybe the atmosphere of his final domicile allowed him to think he had returned to an imagined Edwardian era, watching the primitive Surrey tribes brandishing their irons on the nearby fairways. In sharp contrast to last week’s review subject (Bill Bryson), Sir Wilfred was a nomad who decided to write about his travels, not a writer who set out on a journey for the purpose of composing a book. There is room for both, but in an age when dramas on Everest receive real-time Internet coverage, his passing signals the end of a more dignified era of exploration. Perhaps even those vultures bowed their heads for a moment.

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